Three people walk through a flooded village in Burundi.

People walk through a flooded village in Gatumba, Burundi. In response to the emergency, Save the Children is distributing children's clothes, hygiene and sanitation items, and educational resources. 

COVID 19 Risks in East Africa Heighten as Severe Floods Displace Nearly Half a Million People

FAIRFIELD, Conn. (May 14, 2020)—At least 240,000 children have been forced by torrential rains to flee their homes across Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda.1

As the climate crisis continues to wreak havoc on the region, many weather stations have recorded their highest levels of rainfall in 40 years,2 damaging homes and destroying water sources, making it impossible for families to practice handwashing or social distancing. The devastation has been far-reaching, including:

  • Mass displacement of communities in Uganda, with schools, roads, and bridges washed away and tens of thousands of people displaced. Water levels in Lake Victoria are the highest recorded since 1964.3
  • The town of Beledweyne, Somalia being inundated by floodwaters for the second time since October 2019, with more than 180,000 people forced once again from their homes and into crowded temporary shelters.4
  • At least 166,000 people displaced in Kenya, many of whom are camping in empty schools.
  • Floods and mudslides across much of northern Tanzania, particularly around Arusha and Kilimanjaro regions, leading to 10,000 people living in makeshift camps, schools, and government buildings.
  • Massive landslides in Burundi, where at least 40,000 people have been displaced, with many losing all their belongings.5 The floods are compounding an already tense situation in the country, which faces a potentially violent election next week. 
  • At least 107,000 people displaced in Ethiopia, a country with 8.5 million already severely food insecure people, the highest number in the region.6

Eastern Africa is increasingly feeling the impact of COVID-19, with a steady increase of known cases since the first was declared in Kenya on March 13, 2020. To date, there have been at least 4,435 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Eastern Africa, with Djibouti and Somalia accounting for more than half of all cases.7  Save the Children is gravely concerned about the increased risk to families of contracting COVID-19 as they shelter in unhygienic, severely overcrowded conditions.

Along with the risk of COVID-19, Save the Children is also concerned that the flooding may result in an increase in cases of acute diarrhea, cholera, pneumonia and bilharzia, putting further strain on health systems and more lives at risk. There have already been 90 new cases of acute diarrhea reported in Jubaland, Somalia, since the mass displacement began.8

“This is a rapidly escalating disaster, on top of multiple disasters,” said Save the Children’s Operations Director for East and Southern Africa, Yvonne Arunga. “With the risk of COVID-19 ever-present, we need to make sure that displaced families have access to basic sanitation, and we need to make sure they’re not living back to back in displacement centers. The current situation is a massive COVID-19 outbreak waiting to happen.

“Our emergency response teams are already on the ground, using established disaster reduction systems to roll out a response. We’re working closely with partners to ensure children are protected while displaced, including establishing child protection committees with community leaders and providing direct case support to vulnerable or unaccompanied children. And we’re using community radio to warn people to evacuate from floods before they arrive, and working with our Village Disaster Management Committees, made up of community members and local councils, to distribute tents and share information.”

Climate shocks, including the rains and floods, coupled with the ongoing locust infestation, COVID-19, and a reliance on forms of income that are impacted by COVID-19 restrictions—such as tourism and remittances—has put unprecedented pressure on highly vulnerable, malnourished families across Eastern Africa. Children with a poor diet, particularly in the early months and years of life, have an increased risk of illness, infections, and stunting, which can impact their learning, development, productivity, and health in adulthood.

Save the Children is working across the region to respond to the flood crisis, distributing household essentials, water, and sanitation items. In Uganda, we are distributing tents to affected families sheltering in overcrowded conditions in churches and schools. In Kenya, we are providing household kits to displaced families camping in schools, to reduce the reliance on shared facilities. In Somalia, we are providing clean water through water trucking, and services via mobile health and nutrition teams. We are also using COVID-19 hygiene messages adapted for the situation to help children and their families find ways to keep clean while displaced.

Photo Credit: Dushime Entente Habib/Save the Children

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